“For two decades, one in ten light bulbs in America has been powered by nuclear material from Russian nuclear warheads. The 1993 United States-Russian Federation Highly Enriched Uranium Purchase Agreement has proven to be one of the most successful nuclear nonproliferation partnerships ever undertaken. The completion of this ‘swords to ploughshares’ program represents a major victory both for the United States and Russia.” – U.S. Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz, November 14, 2013
Yesterday, American officials and their Russian counterparts marked the end of the Megatons to Megawatts program with the last shipment of Low Enriched Uranium (LEU) from Russia to the United States. This nuclear fuel was part of a bilateral program, stemming from an agreement reached in 1992, that converted 20,000 Russian warheads into commercial reactor-grade fuel. This was done at no cost to the U.S. taxpayer – and it produced enough energy to power homes and businesses across the entire United States for two years.
In the many speeches I have given on nuclear issues, I have always pointed to this program as an example of how nuclear energy has aided our non-proliferation agenda—raising the ironic notion that nuclear power may be one of the most effective ways of reducing or eliminating excess weapons-grade nuclear material. Judging from audience reaction over the years, apparently this program was—unfortunately—one of the best-kept secrets in the energy field. The Megatons to Megawatts program was an inspired “win-win” for both Russia and the United States and eliminated tens of thousands of warheads from Russia’s nuclear stockpile through a mutually beneficial commercial transaction.
The program’s end was marked during the 60th anniversary of Atoms for Peace, President Eisenhower’s seminal address to the United Nations on December 8, 1953. Megatons to Megawatts epitomized Eisenhower’s vision to develop the peaceful uses of the atom. The thirty-fourth President’s commitment to this goal transformed a science that had been, until that time, focused primarily on military applications and the production of nuclear weapons. By challenging the international community to work towards developing the peaceful uses of the atom, this U.S. initiative opened the way for nuclear energy production, nuclear medicine, and other applications in food and water safety. This assured U.S. leadership in finding “the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”
Much of world is better today because the atom has been applied to life-sustaining purposes, and its role can only become more important in the future. Nuclear energy is the only baseload form of electricity that does not put carbon into the atmosphere – a crucial consideration as the planet grapples with climate change and its consequences. And, millions of lives are saved worldwide every year through the use of nuclear medicine for the diagnosis and treatment of serious medical conditions. Annually, twenty million people in the United States alone benefit from such treatment.
One can only reflect on the transformational leadership that was required to “reframe” the atomic issue in 1953. Just months before Eisenhower’s speech, Joseph Stalin had died and the Soviet Union had broken the U.S. monopoly on the testing of the hydrogen bomb. The hydrogen bomb was and is a terrifying weapon, several hundred times more powerful than the atomic bomb used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The world quivered at its awesome, destructive power.
In contrast, we seem complacent today. Despite the pending economic and physical dislocation, we have no long-term plan for addressing the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change. And Washington pundits say it is “too hard” to get carbon legislation back on the table.
At the same time, nuclear power – the most powerful carbon-free technology – is being threatened by short-term market forces. Recently, decisions were made to shutter perfectly safe and reliable nuclear power plants—which are fully amortized—for economic reasons. These relate to the shale gas “revolution” that promises cheap, abundant supplies and short lead time construction. As abundant as gas may be, ultimately it must be a transition fuel as gas still emits 50% of the carbon that is typical of coal. If nuclear energy continues to be marginalized will we still have the technical capability in the United States –and the work force – to ramp it up again when we finally have the courage to deal with the looming climate catastrophe? Market forces are short-term mechanisms—yet we are relying on them in this case for addressing a crucial long-term problem.
For America to remain a strong leader and to address its longer-term carbon-constrained future we must have an energy strategy. This entails aligning both the methods and the means to assure a diversified energy portfolio. This is recognized in many important policy circles but deemed, apparently, controversial from a political standpoint.
There are additional consequences for the United States if we retreat from what was traditionally our global leadership in nuclear energy. Leadership requires the capacity to use leverage and influence to achieve objectives. The United States needs a robust nuclear program if it is to continue to be a force for curbing nuclear proliferation and competing in the lucrative global nuclear industry. Unless we act soon, an industry founded in this country will continue to yield its position to friends, competitors and potential adversaries alike.
Aside from the carbon-free generation of electricity, nuclear energy has also provided ways —ironically — for many countries of the world to cooperate. For those nations in compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, peaceful nuclear cooperation has, at times, been extraordinary—making the world a safer place.
The times demand a renewed vision – one that will keep the United States in the civil nuclear game. Its sixty year history has been one of remarkable success from every conceivable metric, including its capacity to create stable, well-paying domestic jobs. When it comes to peace and prosperity the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts. Megatons to Megawatts showed us that this is possible.